Ecuador’s efforts to improve higher education poses a threat in dozens of privately owned ‘garage universities’

Mar 22, 2012 | 0 comments

There are no ivy-covered walls at Alfredo Pérez Guerrero University. No quad. No soccer fields. The entire campus fits in four small, rented buildings on the fringes of a modest residential neighborhood. Its main entrance is on a busy street, between a furniture shop and a store that sells remote-controlled toy cars and airplanes.

But on a recent evening, students lounged out front and debated the question that thousands of their peers are asking about what President Rafael Correa has called Ecuador’s “garage universities”: what do we do if the government shuts our school down?

“There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of uncertainty,” said Carlos Ortega, 27, who is in his fourth year of a five-year law degree course at Alfredo Pérez. The school is one of 24 privately owned universities that have received a failing grade from the Ecuadorean government, meaning that if they do not make major improvements they will be closed. Two government-run schools also received failing grades and may be shut down.

For Correa, a former university economics professor, the changes cannot come soon enough. “Ecuador probably has the worst universities” in South America, he said in an interview at the presidential palace this month. Many of the failing universities, which serve 69,500, “are cheating their students because they don’t have the minimum elements to guarantee academic excellence,” he said.

Correa’s leftist government is undertaking a major reset of the system, which includes 71 universities and 621,000 students. That effort began in earnest in late 2009 when the government conducted an evaluation of the country’s universities, grading them from A to E.

This year, for the first time, admission to the country’s 29 public universities, which have about 70 percent of all students, will be based on an aptitude test. That is meant to replace a chaotic and often unfair system in which many students got into schools because they knew people who could pull strings. Others stood in line for hours to get open slots.

Unlike the SAT in the United States, the test measures basic learning skills, rather than knowledge, and the government hopes it will help increase university access among poorer students, including indigenous groups. A new Constitution passed in 2008 eliminated tuition to the public universities, in another step to make education more accessible to the poor.

The government is also seeking to improve the quality of teaching. By 2017, all professors must have at least a master’s degree, and many will be required to have a doctoral degree.

That will not be easy. Some educators say the goals are too ambitious. Only three universities in Ecuador, two in Quito and one in Cuenca, give Ph.D.’s and they grant a total of about 20 a year, according to René Ramírez, the government secretary of higher education, science, technology and innovation.

“In a short time we’re trying to make a radical change,” Ramírez said.

In part to increase the pool of qualified professors, the government has embarked on an ambitious scholarship program. A few years ago, the country gave scholarships for postgraduate study abroad to about 20 students a year. Last year, 1,070 students got the scholarships. This year, Ramírez expects that number to exceed 3,000.

Students who get the scholarships agree to return to Ecuador when their studies are finished and remain here for at least twice the time the government paid for them to be abroad. The government hopes they will become university professors or work in the private sector.

To get this far, Correa has had to take on some sacred cows of the left. The government’s evaluation process punched a hole in the traditional autonomy of universities. Though the emergence of so-called garage universities illustrates the demand for higher education, Correa also says that not all students will be able to go to college. He favors a system based on merit.

The strategy, he said, was to “make universities more selective, because at least in the short term the country doesn’t have the resources to greatly enlarge its capacity in terms of the number of universities.”

Until recently, the opposite was occurring. In the last 20 years, a cottage industry was born around the creation of small, privately operated universities. With virtually no regulation, the quality of these schools was often very low — although the profits could be quite high.

They earned the name “garage universities” because the worst ones were a long way from having the facilities and academic resources of more established schools. Some specialized in giving courses online. Most used part-time professors, which Ramírez said meant lower teaching quality. About half the students received degrees in business administration. Cosmetology was another popular degree.

After they were graded in late 2009, the failing schools were given time to make improvements before undergoing a new round of evaluations, which is wrapping up now. The results will be announced next month.

Still, there is wide expectation that at least some schools will be closed. The government has pledged that most of the students at those schools will be transferred to other universities.

But that could be thousands of students in a system that is already overloaded, and many students worry that there will not be enough room for them. Or they fear that because their previous school was considered inferior they will have to drop back a year, meaning it will take longer to graduate and bring more costs.

“I don’t think they are going to be able to find room for all the students,” said Pamela Medina, a second-year medical student at the Latin American Christian University in the capital, Quito, the only one of the failing schools that offers a medical degree.

All of the failing schools were created since the mid-1990s; their administrators said that put them at a disadvantage.

“It was radically unfair to judge a young university against much older universities using the same parameters and requirements,” said Susan Cordero, the rector of the University of Otavalo, a failing school that was created eight years ago.

It is in Imbabura Province, a heavily indigenous area north of Quito. Forty percent of its 280 students belong to indigenous groups, which Cordero said made the school unique.

At Alfredo Pérez Guerrero University in Quito, students said the school’s tuition of about $1,100 a semester was less expensive than in many other schools. They also praised the small class sizes, with often as few as 10 or fewer students in a class.

Jorge Enríquez Páez, the school’s rector, said he made changes to meet government standards, including buying more computers. But he said that only a fifth of the professors were full-time, well below the government’s goal of 60 percent.
Enríquez said that he created the school using his own savings because he believes in his country’s young people. “This is a life’s work, not a business,” he said. “I am a dreamer.”

Credit: By William Neuman, The New York Times,; photo caption: President Rafael Correa says that Ecuador may have the worst universities in South America.


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